Film Photography

Comparing developing and scanning from several labs on the same film stock

Earlier this year I bought five rolls of Kroger 200 color negative film, an expired Ferrania emulsion, from Photo Warehouse. Ferrania stopped making color film sometime between 2008 and 2010, so this film is no newer than that. I don’t know how it was stored, but I presume the whole lot Photo Warehouse had for sale was stored the same way.

I’ve shot four rolls of this stuff now in various cameras. I shot the first roll in a fixed-exposure camera and wasn’t wowed by the color shifts and grain. I shot the other rolls at EI 100, which helped a lot. Yet each roll came back looking different.

Lots of factors play in how images look. The light meters on my old film cameras might not be consistent with each other. The quality of the light varies from subject to subject. Different lenses impart different qualities. But I think the biggest factors are processing and scanning. I sent each of these three rolls to different labs.

Just for grins, I’ll show you a couple images from the first roll I shot. I think Roberts Camera developed and scanned the roll — I didn’t keep a record as I usually do, but the scan dimensions are the ones I get from Roberts. I shot the roll in my Reto Ultra Wide and Slim. The whole roll was underexposed. I remedied that as best I could in Photoshop, to find intrusive grain but reasonable color fidelity.

Little blue house
Yellow box truck on a green wall

I shot the next and all subsequent rolls at EI 100. I sent the first of these to Old School Photo Lab. I wouldn’t normally send them a roll of expired film containing non-critical images, as OSPL is by far the most expensive consumer lab I know of. But I had a few critical rolls to send them, and I just dropped this roll into the envelope, too. I shot my Nikon F3 with the 55mm f/2.8 Micro-Nikkor lens on it. Here are a couple images. These look really good to me, with excellent color fidelity and smooth grain. The purple in the first image is just spot on.

Purple flower
Granddaughter

I sent the next roll to Dwayne’s Photo. This time I shot my Nikon FA with a 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5 Zoom Nikkor. The results were mixed. Images I made at a farmers market had good color fidelity and noticeable, but pleasing, grain. Images I made of old houses in Bloomington, Indiana, looked a little dingy and brown. I was able to remedy that in Photoshop to some extent.

Produce
On Bloomington's Brick Streets

Roberts Camera here in Indianapolis developed and scanned the fourth roll. Here I shot a Pentax Spotmatic SP II with a 50mm f/1.4 Super-Multi-Coated Takumar lens. That lens’s wonderful qualities really shone through on these images, but these all had a brown caste that I had to remove in Photoshop. Colors looked more muted than in real life. Grain is managed and looks much like what I experienced in the images Dwayne’s processed.

In Lockerbie
Michigan Road in Burlington

To my eye, Old School Photo Lab wins. The images from that roll look like fresh film to me. But ay yi yi are they expensive, at almost $20 to develop and scan a roll of 35mm color negative film.

I’ll try to make it a point to send my one remaining roll of this film to Fulltone Photo, a lab I use a lot because they do good work for noticeably less than any of the other labs I use.

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10 thoughts on “Comparing developing and scanning from several labs on the same film stock

  1. Andy Umbo says:

    Interesting…one wonders if accepted “high-end” labs in NYC (like Duggal) and LA would have the same amount of variation? Of course, you’re showing the whole reason professional photographers, for the most part (not wedding and portrait people), shot transparency for reproduction. Sharper, finer grain (in the old days anyway), and zero ability to have to “interpret” a color. One you tested your film emulsion, decided on if you needed any filters to meet your needs, you could fly across the country and supposedly get your film processed at any Kodak E-6 “Q” labs and it would look exactly the same. No secondary, or tertiary level lab person interpreting your skin tones to something they liked. You matched the colors as shown in the transparency if you wanted a print.

    I know we talked about this before, but the weirdness for me isn’t so much that modern labs might not interpret the color you want on a scan, easily fixed in any image program; it’s that the scan and/or output seems to be slightly “soft”. Last time I tested a camera and had the film processed locally, it was actually soft enough to make me think there was something wrong with the camera, until I checked the negs under a high powered loupe; they were razor sharp. Of course, color neg film can be screwed up by being processed a little hot or cold, or the “line” isn’t running exactly correct. That can cause not only contrast problems with color neg, but grain variation problems.

    I’d like to see a test with fresh Ektar 100, at 4 big, agreed on professional labs, like Duggal.

    • I expect that high-end labs will yield the best possible results from my film, even janky old expired film like this stuff. I also expect that from one high-end lab to the next, I might see slight variations in the scans of color negatives but nothing wild.

      As we’ve discussed before, consumer labs are a little Wild West. Lately I’ve been unhappy with the scans I’m getting from Roberts — but it hasn’t always been that way, and might return to good again one day. Who knows.

      OSPL has always delivered well for me, but I just can’t justify $20 for each roll. Fulltone Photo does consistently acceptable work (to my eye) at a much better price. I shot a whole bunch of 120 and 35mm over the weekend and it’s all going to Fulltone.

  2. ERIC J VANDRICK says:

    This is the kind of dev and scan review that I have been hoping for…. although I would really like to see it with fresh film. The variation in quality of dev and scans is a bit concerning. I will say I have noticed variation in ferrania consumer films… even among rolls from the same batch when I have dev and scanned at home. Obviously more variables when done at home without precise equipment… but somthing worth considering.

    • I ought to shoot a bunch of rolls of a film I know well, like Fujicolor 200, in the same camera one roll after another, and then send each roll to a different lab (among the ones I regularly use) to see what turns out.

  3. Interesting results…the first film lab I used when I started shooting film again four years ago turned out to be a little inconsistent. Their first rolls were good enough to make me want to keep shooting film, but subsequent batches not as good. I have settled on two favourite labs now, the one I usually use is reasonably priced and both quick and consistently good quality developing and scanning. If I need E6 processing, or pushing/pulling I go to another lab a little further away. They are slightly more expensive, but totally reliable. I think the only reason to go elsewhere would be if I am overseas and concerned about getting film safely through an airport that has the new CT scanners! The last time we went to the UK on holiday I found a good lab in Cardiff, where I bought my film and had it processed. No risk that way!

    • When you find a lab you like, you’re golden! I don’t have any one lab I like so much over the others that I won’t use the others from time to time.

  4. This is a really great topic. And one I’d love to see more detailed exploration of. I actually fits in with my recent post about dealing with problems with ones lab results.

    I think that, given all the variables noted here, it’s somewhat unfair to conclude a “winner” lab. Noted variables aside, every lab is capable of very different work if not provided specific instructions. While C41 processing may be more or less universal, there is a lot of style that comes from scanning and the corrections made in that process. When I was shooting color and having labs do my work, I would often discuss with the techs exactly what results I was looking to get and provided feedback on their work until we got things calibrated. A good lab, pro or not, will usually be willing to make a specific corrections profile in their scanner for frequent customers. I also chose labs based on what chemicals they ran because I truly believe Kodak films are best processed and scanned by Kodak labs, Fuji films are best processed and scanned by Fuji labs and b&w really needs to be sorted out by which developer is being used.

    If you’re in search of the right lab for you, you might find it useful to start with the cheapest one that’s easiest to work with and just discussing the results you’re looking for with them. There was a time that I was getting paid work processed at the local Target, simply because I became friends with one of the techs there who actually cared about eeking the highest performance out of their chemistry and scanner. He was able to unlock the resolution limit on their scanner and properly tested the chemistry before doing my work or he would tell me to wait until it had been changed. I was paying something stupid like $5 per roll until they shut the lab down. I did the same thing with a nice old lady running our local Costco lab at $9 a roll. Anyway, just like with cameras, the cost itself often has little to do with the performance. It’s how the equipment is used. Which requires two-way communication, and of course consistent baseline standards – which you of course know about in engineering!

    Great topic!

    • Welllllll, I write personally, not objectively, and from that perspective I can definitely choose a favorite! But it would be interesting indeed to do a more controlled experiment. One camera, one lens, one C41 film stock, same day to get similar lighting. Shoot a lot, shoot fast. Then send the rolls to various labs to see what comes back.

      I didn’t know that I could work with even a lower-end consumer lab to dial in my settings. Interesting. Fulltone Photo is the one I use most these days and maybe it’s worth calling them to find out. I have found that they aren’t very communicative, but I’ve always used email before and maybe that’s not their preferred way.

      I used to use Target! And CVS, and Costco. Costco was best, and they charged just $4 for developing and generous scans. Target was next in quality, and CVS was only minimally acceptable but they were right by my house. There was also a camera store near a place I used to work that did really good dev/scan of C41. They were more expensive than Target, CVS, or Costco, but it was worth it. I was bummed when they closed.

    • p.s. I’ve considered doing develop only at Roberts and scanning them myself. I’m just increasingly not a fan of their scans. They do 24-48 hour turnaround; I can easily drop by there on my way home from work and pick up my negs.

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